Visiting the Occupy Sydney demonstration outside the Reserve Bank in Martin Place on Friday was something of a surreal experience. Despite the placard quoting Marxist Che Guevara (“a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love”), the demonstration was not about revolution. Rather, the prevailing mood was one of entitlement, as is the case in some 900 similar protests now occurring throughout the world.
While taking notes, I was approached by a young woman who wanted to tell me her story. It turned out she was an unemployed law graduate who had been looking for work for the past three months. Her problem? Well, she wanted to work in a relatively low-paying community law job but the only positions available for law graduates were in relatively high-paying CBD firms. Some injustice, don’t you think?
When I asked why the number of demonstrators seemed small, the response was that many went to work during the day in the IT and other industries and returned to the protest site each evening. The group assembled that morning appeared to be students, unemployed young men and women and a few pensioners, all of whom would probably have been receiving some government-funded payment or subsidy.
This seemed at odds with the signs calling for the end of capitalism in general and taxation in particular. When I asked how the handouts could be funded if taxation was abandoned for the 99 per cent of Australians whom the protesters said they were representing, the young woman said she did not agree with all the placards. She also claimed to have no problem with the Reserve Bank or indeed capitalism. It turned out her real interest was climate change and she wanted huge increases in government subsidies for alternative energy projects. Now.
It seemed that the Occupy Sydney protesters had a sense of entitlement that extended far beyond jobs and policy. Their demands included Wi-Fi, toilets and the right to construct tents. City of Sydney councillor Shayne Mallard was reported as saying that he was supportive of legal protests but opposed “a protest of the anarchist left designed to provoke the authorities and businesses of the city”. On Sunday, NSW Police broke up the camp. The move was backed by the Premier, Barry O’Farrell, but criticised by the lord mayor, Clover Moore.
The Victoria Police had taken similar action in Melbourne on Friday. The Occupy Melbourne protests had turned parts of the Melbourne CBD into a moveable slum and disrupted numerous small businesses in the vicinity. The Sunday Age supported the demonstration, editorialising that “grassroots demonstrators do not threaten civic life, but in many ways enhance it”. Needless to say, businesses losing serious money each day have a different conception of grassroots democracy.
On Saturday I walked past Melbourne’s City Square. There was a heavy police and security presence. It seems the Victorian authorities have junked the hand-holding approach to civil disorder evident when Christine Nixon was police commissioner. The decision to clear the City Square was initiated by the Melbourne lord mayor, Robert Doyle, with the support of the Liberal premier, Ted Baillieu, Labor Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews and Gillard government minister Bill Shorten. The only prominent politician to support the demonstrators was the Greens MP for Melbourne, Adam Bandt.
Historically, the left in Australia has derided the influence of American culture. Yet the Occupy Sydney and Melbourne movements are a copy of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has taken over Zuccotti Park. The American protest is very much a production of the white middle class and it has also created a moveable slum among New York businesses and neighbourhoods.
However, there is, or should be, one essential difference between the protests. The crowd in Zuccotti Park should be directing its anger at the government in Washington presiding over near-record spending and debt accompanied by high levels of unemployment – a special worry among the young and African Americans.
Australia, on the other hand, has one of the strongest economies in the Western world with relatively low unemployment, primarily due to the economic reforms undertaken between 1983 and 2007 by the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments. Also, the Australian financial system was well-regulated. Here the reforms initiated by Peter Costello, to ensure the independence of the Reserve Bank and to establish the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, had a most beneficial effect when the global financial crisis occurred in 2008. Yet the Occupy Sydney movement saw fit to demonstrate outside the Reserve Bank.
Western democracies offer numerous opportunities for protests. The likes of Bandt and Moore take a soft attitude to this occupation of public places, but would be most unlikely to adopt a similar approach if the protesters constituted Tea Party imitators opposing a carbon tax or militant Christians opposing abortion or homosexuality.
One of the Occupy Melbourne organisers acknowledged that the demonstration did not have a point. Narcissism, however, is a very contemporary attitude.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.